Review: ‘Trails of Cold Steel III’ Delivers a Powerful Continuation to a Beloved Series
‘Trails of Cold Steel III’ is the strongest and hardest-hitting entry of an already beloved franchise.
Patience is a virtue, and few games embody that sentiment as well as the “Trails” series. Ever since the 2011 Western release of The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky for the PSP, developer Nihon Falcom has gradually introduced players to the incredibly intricate and engrossing world of Zemuria. Now on the franchise’s eighth installment, The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel III continues the trend of deeply personal storylines becoming entangled with greater ploys, flexible turn-based combat, and a world given as much love and attention as a mother would their child.
A Story of Changing Times
About a year and a half has passed since the events of the second Cold Steel game. Our long-standing protagonist, Rean Schwarzer, finds himself in search of a new purpose and winds up at the newly opened location of his old alma mater — Thors Military Academy Branch Campus — as one of its instructors. Deeply affected by his own time as a student at Thors, he hopes to give back what he’s received and maybe even reclaim something which was lost. Rean is put in charge of a newly formed Class VII and strives to guide his new pupils during turbulent times just as Instructor Sara did for him prior.
Newcomers looking to jump straight into Trails of Cold Steel III will find a comprehensive primer in the game that covers the events of the previous titles. However, due to the deeply interconnected nature of the games, it is still highly recommended to have actually played the previous Trails entries, at least Cold Steel I & II, before jumping into Trails of Cold Steel III.
True to series form, the story of Trails of Cold Steel III is one of constant upheaval and unease punctuated with poignant moments of tender heart-to-hearts, even if it does tend to rely on “saved-by-the-bell” plot devices one too many times. Like every Trails game before it, the story is full of mind-blowing plots twists and touching personal stories. Fans that have been following the series since its onset will find payoffs and tied up loose ends that hit fast and hard throughout the campaign.
The narrative displays a new side of Rean as he shows maturity and stern care for his students and demonstrates a clear degree of growth from the experiences he’s been through. It’s difficult to not get choked up at times during moments that highlight Rean and his fellow original Class VII members’ growths.
The new Class VII, though, is just as engaging as their predecessors. The straight-forward and gung-ho Juna Crawford and down-to-business Kurt Vander are immediately likable and quickly develop a dynamic relationship with one another. Rean’s enemy-turned-aid Altina, meanwhile, is a particular standout as she learns what it means to truly care for others throughout the course of the game.
Artes and Crafts Lessons
While times may be a-changin’ in Erebonia, the combat in Trails of Cold Steel III remains largely the same as its predecessors, albeit with some interesting additions. At its core, up to four party members take turns maneuvering around a field and executing various character-specific crafts and equipable artes to gain the upper hand in battle.
Manipulation of turn order to nab randomized turn bonuses is still present and it’s still just as satisfying to line up the right bonus with the right character. Meanwhile, deciding whether to clump your party together to more easily assist each other or split them apart to avoid being targeted all at once by enemy attacks is one of the many considerations to take into account that brings about stimulating combat.
Link pairs make a return along with all their benefits such as boosting the power of partners’ artes or unbalancing the enemy. Unbalancing an enemy allows for that character’s link partner to follow-up with an attack of their own while also granting Brave Points, or BP. These can be used on Rush and Burst link attacks like previous games but now also serve the purpose of activating one of Trails of Cold Steel III’s new combat systems, Brave Orders.
Brave Orders are powerful buffs that consume BP to affect the whole party and can be used on any character’s turn in addition to their regular actions. They range from simply boosting damage dealt to something as significant as rendering your entire party invulnerable for a number of turns. Issuing the proper Brave Order at the proper times to get out of a tight spot provides a powerful adrenaline rush, especially when paired with the killer guitar riffs of a stellar soundtrack.
Break bars are also a new addition to Trails of Cold Steel III and suffer damage in conjunction with enemies’ regular health. Once depleted, the enemy is “broken”, delaying their turn, lowering their defenses, and guaranteeing every attack on them will unbalance. It’s a neat addition that encourages aggressive play as breaking the enemy can either provide valuable breathing room to recuperate or provide an opportunity to really lay on the hurt.
The addition of break bars and Brave Orders does rather trivialize any difficulty the game may have for the first half or so of the journey. The difficulty does eventually ramp up the heat and throw some fights your way that demand full understanding of these systems to come out on top, though, and triumphing them is nothing short of exhilarating.
Divine Knight mech battles are back for set-piece moments as well but beyond the addition of up to two other party members joining Rean in their own Panzer Soldats, these spectacles remain largely unchanged from the previous game. They’re still a victory lap to wrap up a chapter at their best with little to offer strategically.
Being a Proper Erebonian Citizen
When you’re not off slaying mystical Cryptids or clashing with the ever enigmatic society of Ouroboros, you’re doing the rounds and checking in on those not on the frontlines. One of the Trails series’s greatest strengths is how it builds its world and the people inhabiting it, and Trails of Cold Steel III is no exception.
In addition to his responsibilities teaching at the academy, Rean’s duties will take him all around the previously unseen Western side of the Erebonian Empire. New locales such as the old capital Saint-Arkh and the dazzling coastal city Ordis are welcome sights after the first two games essentially used the same locations.
Graphics from a technical standpoint can still seem stuck in the PS3 era at times but are made up for with acute attention to detail that make these locations feel lived in. Unique items line the shelves of every shop, each student’s dorm room has memorabilia that makes it distinctly theirs, and street corners are packed with interesting architecture. It’s a shame that level of detail still hasn’t carried over to field and dungeon designs, however, as they remain rather bland corridors with the occasional pretty vista or two.
That detail does carry over to NPC dialogue, though, and that goes a long way towards fleshing out the believability of the world. Almost every NPC in Trails of Cold Steel III is named and has their own life that can be followed throughout the game. Speaking with them delivers more than the usual town exposition and instead expands upon the worries of the little people and how these nation moving events have affected them. This is a narrative treat that makes speaking with each and every NPC to check in on their lives an intrinsically gratifying endeavor that gives fascinating glimpses into microcosms of life.
Bonding events, meanwhile, can once again be viewed during Rean’s free days on campus. Beyond increasing bond level that translates to extra battle bonuses, bond events are more importantly when the player and Rean can learn more about his students and allies in meaningful ways. These events are specific to the day they happen on, which means some will be inevitably passed up on a first playthrough but that just makes the ones that are seen feel all the more special.
Such attention to world and character building comes at the price of pacing, however, just as it has in every past Trails game. One can go hours without seeing a single battle depending on how much you choose to engage with Trails of Cold Steel III’s world, which can sometimes feel quite lop-sided. Often times this isn’t an issue because of the aforementioned details but it does sometimes drag when you are wanting to see the next story beat or just want to beat up some monsters.
Arise, O Youth!
In an industry that has prominently been pursuing making soft reboots and sequels of long-running franchises as accessible to newcomers as possible, it’s rare to see something like The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel III that so boldly builds upon the foundations and lore of every previous game in the series. It’s everything that fans have come to adore about the games with a far-reaching story that connects with many aspects of previous titles, characters and a world that organically grow alongside the player, and an engaging battle system with some shiny new tools. It’s a bit of a shame that the flaws persistent throughout the series such as bland dungeon design and uneven pacing have also stuck around but that hasn’t brought the extreme highs down by all that much.
Nihon Falcom is keenly aware of exactly why people play and love their Trails games and that shows by the distinct refinement demonstrated here. This isn’t a reinvention or a bold evolution but the enhancement of every aspect that makes these games so special. The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel III is the strongest and hardest-hitting in the series and one of the most satisfying JRPG’s on the market. Fans of the genre owe it to themselves to not let this veritable gem pass them by.
‘Coffee Talk’ Review: The Best Brew in Town
Coffee Talk is as quaint as your local coffee shop. It’s relatively short, wonderfully sweet, and absolutely committed to the art form of telling a story through a video game screen.
It’s 9:00pm. The rain just started coming down softly a few minutes ago, and the street outside is reflecting the lights above it. Neon signs shine brightly in the distance, although it’s hard to make out the words. You unlock the doors to the coffee shop and wipe down the counters in order to get them clean for the customers. The rain makes a soft sound as it hits the glass and passerby speed up their walking pace to avoid it. The bells chime as a tall, green orc walks in and sits down at your table in silence. You wonder what their story is…
I wanted to set the tone for this review because of how important atmosphere and audio/visual design is in the world of Coffee Talk. While it’s easy to boil the game down as a visual novel-type experience, it’s honestly so much more than that. A unique cast of characters, incredible user interface, and a mysterious protagonist combine to form the most enjoyable experience I’ve had this year on Switch.
Coffee Talk is beautiful because of how simple it is. The entire game takes place within a single coffee shop. As the barista, you’re tasked with making drinks for the patrons of the shop as well as making conversations with them. The twist is that earth is populated with creatures like orcs, werewolves, and succubi. The relationship between the various races is handled very well throughout the story, and some interesting parallels are made to the real world.
Making drinks is as simple as putting together a combination of three ingredients and hitting the ‘Serve’ button. If a unique drink is made, it will be added to a recipe list that can be referenced on the barista’s cell phone. This is where the awesome user interface comes in, as the phone has a series of apps that can be accessed at any moment in the game. One app houses your recipe list, another acts as a facebook for the characters in the game, one allows you to switch between songs, and the other houses a series of short stories that one of the characters in the game writes as it progresses. It’s one of the coolest parts of the whole experience and helps it stand out from other games in the genre.
Coffee Talk is as quaint as your local coffee shop. It’s relatively short, wonderfully sweet, and absolutely committed to the art form of telling a story through a video game screen.
Coffee Talk cycles between talking with customers and making drinks for them. In the beginning, they will ask for basic beverages that can be brewed on the fly. Later on however, they may ask for a specific type of drink that has a unique title. These drinks often have certain descriptive features that hint at other possibilities in terms of unique dialogue. If the wrong drink is made, you’ll have five chances to trash it and make a new one. If the wrong drink is made, don’t expect the customer to be pleased about it.
The gameplay really is not the focus here though; it’s the characters and their stories that take center stage. An elf with relationship issues, a writer that can’t seem to pin down her next story, and an alien whose sole goal is to mate with an earthling are just a few of the examples of the characters you’ll meet during the story. There are tons of memorable moments throughout Coffee Talk, with every character bringing something unique to the table. The barista develops an interesting relationship with many of these characters as well.
Even though serving the wrong drinks can change some of the dialogue, don’t expect any sort of options or branching paths in terms of the story. It’s not that kind of experience; the story should simply be enjoyed for what it is. I found myself glued to the screen at the end of each of the in-game days, waiting to see what would happen in the morning. The first playthrough also doesn’t answer all of the game’s questions, as the second one is filled with all kinds of surprises that I won’t spoil here.
Coffee Talk is as quaint as your local coffee shop. It’s relatively short, wonderfully sweet, and absolutely committed to the art form of telling a story through a video game screen. It’s an easy recommendation for anyone who loves video games, not just visual novel fans. There are characters in the game that I’ll certainly be thinking about for a long time, especially when the setting brings out the best in them. Don’t pass this one up.
‘The Touryst’ Review: Vacation, All I Ever Wanted
There’s an acceptance of a certain rhythm when traveling alone: often an itinerary-less trip will be filled with quiet solitude and uneventful meandering; yet, when those exciting moments of interaction and discovery are inevitably stumbled upon, they tend to be of the highly memorable variety. The latest offering from Shin’en Multimedia, The Touryst, shrewdly captures this relaxing, energizing roller coaster. It’s a quirky little getaway that encourages players to explore its gorgeous voxel island delights at their own pace, letting them bask in the peaceful surroundings and doling out treasure for those curious to seek it out. The result is a soothing weekend sojourn of puzzles, platforming, and mini games under the sun that is also winds up as one of the best indies on the Switch.
There’s no doubt that atmosphere plays a big part in what makes The Touryst so successful, as the vague setup and sparse narrative casts a mysterious aura over the proceedings. Who our mustachioed vacationer is or why he agrees to find glowing blue orbs for some random old man is pretty much left to the imagination. Is the player curious about what they could see and find out there among the green palm trees, sandy beaches, monolithic temples, and sky blue waters? Then they will follow their nose regardless of the lack of any story motivation, and The Touryst has sprung its trap. The urge to see the sights and have an adventure is a must here, and so the wandering begins.
Luckily, The Touryst is filled with charming things to stumble upon around almost every corner, be that a scuba diving boat operator on a Greek isle that facilitates swimming with the fishes, a seaside dance party in need of a hi-tech energy boost, or a bustling business center complete with an arcade, art gallery, and movie theater (for those times when you just need to sit down for a while). Personality abounds, as long as friendly players aren’t shy about talking to strangers (the best way to get the most out of a trip to a new place). No matter where one’s feet take them, there are plenty of mini-stories at play thanks to the native inhabitants and fellow tourists, with these weirdos offering interactions both puzzling and profitable.
But there’s more to life than racking up coins via side quests; there’s something eerily odd buried beneath the tropical destinations of The Touryst that beckons to be uncovered by just the right explorer. Towering mounds filled with ancient devices and clever puzzles hold secrets that promise that this vacation will be one for the scrapbook. These short ‘dungeons’ are the meat of the game, providing a variety of platforming and logic challenges that range from overt to opaque; sometimes even finding the way in to these ominous structures is a puzzle in itself, which only further drives an overarching sense of discovery.
Smartly, The Touryst rarely telegraphs solutions to its tests (or in some cases, that there even is a test), and instead encourages experimentation. Inside temples, players need to determine why certain lights are glowing and others aren’t, understand how sequences work, pay attention to rumbling feedback, and decide just how to deal with once-dormant mechanical creatures that now awaken to stand in the protagonist’s way. Things can seem opaque at times, but Shin’en has managed to hit that sweet spot that keeps poking around from getting too frustrating. But just in case, there are plenty of beach chairs and cabana beds to lie down on and think. Or, just soak in some rays and enjoy the scenery.
Regardless of the difficulty players may or may not have with the crafty puzzles or surprisingly challenging mini games (good lord, surfing and those 8-bit arcade throwbacks can be tough), The Touryst is still a sight to see. Shin’en has created a buttery smooth island-hopping environment that is a pleasure to peruse. Go off the beaten path and enjoy the gorgeous sunsets, gently pixelated waves, crunching grains of sand, and flopping flora. The visuals seem so simple, yet at times can be stunning to behold, especially when spotting some of the smaller details that have been added to make these place come alive. A depth of field style entices players to see just what that blurry landmark off in distance is, and the soundtrack seamlessly shifts between relaxing and intriguingly uncanny. That developers have achieved this with what are surely the shortest load times on Nintendo’s console makes the experience all the more immersive.
Like most vacations, The Touryst is destined to be over too soon for some players, but trips like these aren’t meant to last forever. The five hours or so it takes to see all there is to see is highly satisfying throughout, and the vague hint at the end of a followup will have many Switch-owning puzzle fans looking forward to getting future time off.
‘Shovel Knight: King of Cards’ and ‘Showdown’ Review: Really Spoiling Us
It’s a Yacht Club Games overdose this holiday, as the Kings of Kickstarter are back with two new entries in the Shovel Knight franchise.
It’s a Yacht Club Games overdose this holiday season, as the Kings of Kickstarter are back with, not just one, but two new entries in the Shovel Knight franchise. Not content with just releasing another new character’s twist on the original formula, Yacht Club has also developed their own fighting game in the Shovel Knight universe. It’s to the developer’s credit that two simultaneous releases can be of this quality, but valid questions can also be asked as to whether the original formula has gotten stale, and whether Showdown’s new concept does the series justice. Fear not, for both questions will be answered in this bumper, two-for-one review!
Shovel Knight: King of Cards
King of Cards is the latest re-tread of Shovel Knight, and this time the emperor’s new clothes are the regal duds of King Knight, who is on a quest to become the greatest player in the kingdom of the card game Joustus… without really having to beat that many people at it. After the stoically heroic Shovel Knight, the dastardly cunning Plague Knight, and the broodingly enigmatic Spectre Knight, King of Cards’ protagonist embodies an enjoyable dose of pompous entitlement. His quest isn’t all that noble, and he really can’t be bothered to do a lot of hard graft to reach his goal. Thanks to the typically witty script, King Knight shines as a loathsome oik who doesn’t pay attention to any advice he’s given, and would rather have a fight, or cheat, than actually get better at Joustus.
Joustus might not really be all that important to King Knight, but it adds an entirely new element to the traditional Shovel Kinght gameplay. Those players who are a sucker for built-in card games (myself included) will find a lot to enjoy when stepping away from all the platforming and fighting to engage in a round of Joustus. The game is played by placing cards, one at a time, onto a grid with the goal of having more of your cards placed on top of gems than your opponent.
All cards contain abilities and can be used to shove opposing cards out of the way (and off the gems), with advanced cards used to blow up, slam or recruit those of the other player. It all starts off simple enough, but can get really brain-taxing as the story progresses, and grows to be a real highlight of the game – and one of the better card-games-within-a-game I’ve played. Cheat cards can be bought to give you a leg up for trickier opponents, especially as the winner of each game gets to take one (or three if you control all gems at the end of the round) card from the loser.
Outside of Joustus, King of Cards will feel pleasingly familiar to fans of the series. As in previous entries, the levels all share the same look and gimmicks as the original Shovel Knight, but are reshaped to adapt to the new abilities of King Knight. He has a shoulder barge attack that launches him forward, across gaps if need be, and will send him into a spin on contact with enemies or certain types of walls and blocks. This spin move acts very much in the same way as Shovel Knight’s shovel pogo attack, and allows King Knight to bounce around levels with impressive finesse. Anyone who’s played Shovel Knight before knows the drill now – try and clear every screen by chaining together as many bounce attacks as you can. It’s the law.
It also wouldn’t be a Shovel Knight game if there weren’t a ton of unlockable moves and buffs. Amongst the best unlocks for King Knight are a Tazmanian Devil-esque tornado spin that allows him to climb walls and smash up enemies, a hammer that produces hearts with each wallop for precious HP, throwable suicide bomber mice, and the ability to stand still and have a big ol’ cry to regain HP. Something we can all relate to.
The world map returns, and is in its best guise in King of Cards. Levels are now a lot shorter than you’d expect – there’s typically only one checkpoint in the non-boss levels – but there are a lot more of them, and a large number have secret exits to find. They’re interspersed with the multiple opportunities to play Joustus, and with the seemingly random appearances of traditional Shovel Knight bosses who show up, Hammer Bros. style, on the map to block your progress. It makes for a really tight campaign that’s filled with a ton of variety.
It seems almost arbitrary to say, but if you like Shovel Knight and you’re not tired of the standard gameplay, there’s so much to enjoy with King of Cards. He’s probably not the most fun character to play as (for me, that’d be Spectre Knight), but his game is easily the most diverse. He’s just such an enjoyably unlikeable idiot that you’ll constantly be playing with a smile on your face, bopping along to the classic Shovel Knight chiptunes, pogoing around levels and pausing for the occasional game of cards. Who could ask for more?
Shovel Knight Showdown
Who likes Shovel Knight boss fights? Everyone does, right? How about fighting three of them at once in an amalgamation of Smash Bros. and Towerfall? It’s as chaotic as you’re imagining, and seems like a total no-brainer as a second genre for Yacht Club to transpose their blue, spade-loving hero into.
What seemed like an obviously smart move doesn’t necessarily play out in an ideal way. The one-on-one fights in Showdown are as tightly-contested and entertaining as ever, but the multi-man rumbles are absolute mayhem. There are a few different stipulations applied to fights, and these typically involve simply whittling down your opponents’ lives, or depleting their health bar to briefly kill them off and steal any gems they’ve collected from around the level, with the winner being the first to an assigned number.
Standard fights are more enjoyable, as the simplicity of smacking seven shades of snot out of the competitors keeps things manageable amongst the cacophony of onscreen visual noise. The gem-collecting levels, especially with multiple opponents, are frankly a bit of a mess that I rarely found enjoyable.
Perhaps I’m just not very good at Shovel Knight boss fights, but the game felt overly difficult even on the normal setting. Playing story mode often sees your chosen character up against three opponents on the same team, and when it comes to collecting gems from around the level, they’ve got way more of the space covered and you barely get a chance to breathe with them swarming you from the word go. It’s basically an exercise in getting wailed on while you try to run away and scramble for gems, and it’s just not that fun.
What does add a layer of fun to the game is the chance to play as the complete ‘Knight’ roster of Shovel Knight characters, and the best part of Showdown is learning new moves and trying to find your ‘main’. Perhaps, with more time to sit down and learn the move sets in the practice mode, the game would feel more rewarding than if you just jump in and try to slog through the chaotic story mode as I did.
With a four-player battle mode as the only other gameplay option, Showdown was clearly never meant to be anything other than a brief little curio to give fans of the series’ boss fights an overdose of what they love, but as a complete experience, I found it lacking in both modes and reasons to keep plugging away at the arcade fighter-style story mode. It turns out that the boss fights in Shovel Knight are more fun at the end of a platforming level rather than in the middle of enclosed space filled with flashing lights, random effects, environmental hazards, and three bastards all chasing you down. If you can handle all that stress, you’ll have a much better time than I did.
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